If God is Sovereign Why is Life Such a Mess?
Sovereignty of God, Proverbs, Free Will, Total Depravity
Christians declare that there is a God and He (being an involved Creator) is in charge. His power is absolute. In fact, if there was some area over which God was not in charge, He would not be God because at least in that one area there would in a sense be a power that was over Him (thus making it/he/she God).
As we look at the world around us we see evidence that there is a Creator. We see the hand of an artist, the intricacy of design that defies the notion that creation happened by mere chance (whatever that is). We conclude that life has meaning and a purpose and we are not an accident.
These beliefs lead to what we call the doctrine of the Sovereignty of God. To be the Sovereign is to be the King or the ruler. One commentator defines it this way.
When we say that God is sovereign, we mean that He is in charge of the universe and that He can do as He pleases. In saying that, however, we know that, because He is God, He will never do anything wrong, unjust, or unrighteous. Therefore, to say that God is sovereign is merely to allow God to be God. We should not be afraid of this truth or apologize for it. It is a glorious truth and should cause us to worship.
Listen to these verses from Proverbs which assert the Sovereignty of God.
10:3 The Lord will not let the godly go hungry, but he refuses to satisfy the craving of the wicked
Proverbs 16:9 We can make our plans, but the Lord determines our steps
16:33 We may throw the dice, but the LORD determines how they fall.
19:21 You can make many plans, but the Lord’s purpose will prevail.
21:1 The king’s heart is like a stream of water directed by the Lord; he guides it wherever he pleases.
The Sovereignty of God asserts that God is ruler over all. He gives and He takes away. He causes some things to happen, allows other things to happen, and prohibits some things from happening (I believe we will be humbled and blown away when we get to Heaven and find out all the things God spared us from experiencing).
If there is not someone or something that is sovereign, then life is like a car without a driver. Life is arbitrary. It is headed nowhere in particular and there is no way to know when you have gotten there. Consequently, life becomes just an exercise in meaninglessness.
We are OK with the idea of a God being “out there” somewhere. Almost everyone believes this instinctively. What people don’t like is the idea that God’s sovereignty extends into their own personal lives. A Puritan writer said,
But unless he has control over the workings of the human heart and the volitions of the human soul, how could this purpose be realized? If He controls not the thoughts and the impulses of the human mind, He has no control over the human race, and His purpose have no guarantee for their fulfillment. (David Thomas, Proverbs p. 486)
God’s Sovereignty and Man’s Freedom
One of the biggest objections to the doctrine of the Sovereignty of God is that it seems to remove our freedom. If God is truly in control of everything, then do our choices mean anything or are they simply the way God programmed us to act? And if we are acting only in the way we have been programmed to act then how can God judge us for acting sinfully? It would appear this is what He made us to do!
When we talk about human freedom we need to understand a couple of things. First, because of sin our freedom is not absolute. In other words we really never make truly free choices. Every choice we make is made because of a bias.
Why is it that you can walk up to two people and say, “Do you want to go fishing this afternoon?” and one person will say, “You bet, let me get my pole!” and the other person will say, “I’m not really a fisherman. I think I’d rather stay home and read a book.” Why do these people make different choices? It is because one was taught how to fish at an early age. They were taught the love of fishing, the other was not. The decision they make is based on their bias, what they have learned to love. We will always choose that which seems more desirable to us. Every day of our life we are developing or strengthening our tastes, desires, beliefs, and biases. We will make decisions on the basis of those things.
Watch a dog. If you put two different bowls of food in front of them and even if they were equal in their nutritional value they will first sniff them. They will choose which to eat first on the basis of which is more attractive to them. That attraction is determined by experience. If they don’t like either food they will simply walk away.
This is where sin comes in. Starting with the sin of Adam and Eve mankind has a “sin bias” in other words we generally chose to rebel against God’s rule. We acknowledge His rule when it suits us or we need something, but otherwise we will choose to do our own thing or “redefine” God so that He approves of our behavior. In both cases we are refusing to submit to His Sovereign Rule. This is why the Bible can say, “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God”. It is why Paul says, “There is no one who is righteous (who does what is right in God’s eyes), not even one.” Given the opportunity to choose between denying ourselves and honoring the Lord or choosing to get what we most desire . . . we will (apart from Christ) always choose what we think is in our best interest. Even when we appear to be choosing to do the right thing it is often because it gets us something that we want. It is selfishly motivated. In theological terms this is called “total depravity”. It means that we have a sin bias in every area of our lives.
Second, God’s sovereignty does not violate man’s freedom. The Bible teaches us that God knows what we will choose (because He knows us better than we know ourselves) and uses those choices to accomplish His purposes. One writer gives us a picture,
Suppose a man of great insight into character, and great experience as to how certain circumstances affect certain organizations, predicted that if a certain person whom he thoroughly understood was placed in certain conditions, a certain course of conduct on his part would be the inevitable result: that person, without knowing the prediction, falls into those circumstances and pursues a course of conduct identical with that foretold. Did the knowledge of the prophet exercise any coercion at all upon the mind of this individual? Certainly not. It is therefore not impossible to conceive of Him who knows all men’s organizations, and all the circumstances through which they are to pass, carrying on His purposes and yet leaving them in perfect possession of their freedom and accountability.
God knows us better than we will ever know ourselves. He understands how we will respond to every circumstance. As individuals we will always choose to resist submission to the Lord. This is because this is our bias. We refuse to give up control. We refuse to allow God that position of control in our lives. Yes, we want Him to do things for us. We want Him to bless us. But we want Him to work for us; not the other way around.
The only way we will freely choose to follow Christ is for God to do something in us that changes our appetite. This is called election or regeneration. It is God’s way of drawing us to Himself. God knows how to influence us in such ways that we freely choose Him. God gives us a measure of His Spirit to us to draw us to Himself. He uses circumstances and thoughts to help us become convicted of our sinfulness and to recognize that we need help and that the only help is found in Jesus.
God is completely effective in His efforts. Do we understand why God chooses some and not others? No. Is there anything we can do to produce faith apart from God’s intervention? No. The bias must be changed . . . and only God can do that.
The point is that this work of God does not make us robots. In a sense, God determines to create a desire in some people much like advertisers appeal to a target audience. The advertisers create an interest, a sense of need, and then a desire for their product. They package it attractively and seek to place it before us as often as possible. Before long we are buying the product. Has our free will be violated? Nope. Has the advertiser accomplished his purpose? Yes.
Now I hate the thought of associating the Almighty God with an advertiser. God’s purpose is not for His profit. It is not manipulation or selfish in any way. God’s purpose is pure. He wants to draw us to Him so we can know the life, joy, and fellowship He created us for. He wants us to fulfill our destiny. My point is this: if advertisers can influence us without violating our freedom . . . so can the Lord.
What About Evil?
Since God is Sovereign it means He could stop bad things from happening (and sometimes He does . . . I suspect He does it much more than we realize). It means He could choose to heal every sick person and eliminate every disease. He could destroy all evil people and by so doing make this a better place to live. Yet, it seems He does not do so consistently.
Even in the Bible we read about plagues and persecutions. We read of God’s servants being thrown in jail and sometimes dying there. If God is Sovereign why does all of this happen? Why do children get cancer? Why do some survive accidents while others are killed? Why do some people have psychological problems or physical predispositions or physical limitations? These are tough questions!
The only answer to the question, in my mind, has to be: it serves God’s purpose. Somehow by allowing pain and sorrow in our lives we learn important lessons:
- The effects of sin are painful. This is true not only of our sin but we see the ripple effects of the sin of others. Every time we try to play God we set in motion waves that will have bitter consequences. We need to be delivered from the effects of sin.
- We are not all-powerful. We are not in control. The painful times of life, the hard things, the natural disasters all remind us that we have no real power in life. The power we think we have is an illusion. All we have built our life on (if it is not the Lord) can be wiped out in one moment. It is that fragile. We need to find a foundation that will hold in the storms of life.
- This world is not our home. There are wonderful things in this world. We see God’s artistry and the beauty of His design but we also see the decay that sin has brought into our world. The pain of this life creates within us an appetite for the life that is to come.
From the book of Job we learn that Satan cannot operate without God’s permission. So we ask, “Why does God give Satan permission?” My only conclusion is that God intends to use pain and evil for His good purpose. He will teach us what it means to believe and trust Him; He will help us see how deeply He loves us; He will show us just how faithful he really is through those things that hurt and don’t seem to make any sense.
Look, I know that in the time of crisis we don’t see anything of redeeming value in the situation. But that doesn’t mean there are not redeeming purposes! We may not know why one person is spared (or healed) and another person is not. But that does not mean there is no reason. It just means it is more profound than we can grasp.
Napoleon, at the height of his career, is reported to have given this cynical answer to someone who asked if God was on the side of France: “God is on the side that has the heaviest artillery.”
Then came the Battle of Waterloo, where Napoleon lost both the battle and his empire. Years later, in exile on the island of St. Helena, chastened and humbled, Napoleon is reported to have quoted the words of Thomas à Kempis: “Man proposes; God disposes.”
It is the hard times of life that show us the reality of our existence. We have a hard time with the doctrine of God’s sovereignty because we want to be sovereign in our own lives! We want to be the King. We have problems with the sovereign nature of God because it doesn’t fit with what we want God to be! We want Him to serve US!
The point is that the ways of God are different than the ways of men. God sees the big picture; we don’t. God has an eternal perspective, ours is temporal. God does not need us to defend Him or explain Him. In the times that confuse we are left to either walk away from God or to put our trust in His character and love.
The Value of the Doctrine for Daily Living
What does God’s sovereignty mean to us practically?
First, it means life is not meaningless. There is a purpose to our existence set by a wise and loving God. It means the things we don’t understand are not “meaningless” they are just not understood. There is a difference. I find comfort in the fact that even though I don’t understand why some things happen; even though I hate the way some things happen; life is not out of control. God is at work. I may not know how or what He is doing, but He is working.
Second it means hope is not lost. We look around us and it is easy to wring our hands. We want to give up sometimes. We may want to give up on our own life; we may want to give up on our country; our marriage; our job; or our education. The reason we want to give up is because we have left the sovereignty of God out of the equation. We don’t see any way WE can fix things. However, God can change lives, hearts, and circumstances. In fact, He does it all the time.
If we learn anything from history and from the record of the Jews in the Old Testament it is that God has a tendency to bring beauty out of ashes. The times of deepest wickedness seem to bring people to their knees and when we hit our knees His strength has a chance to shine. God is not bound by the circumstances of men. He is able to change ANY situation.
God changes hearts and thoughts, sometimes He creates delays; other times He opens doors, He directs us to people, truth or hundreds of other things. He can change a situation with a dramatic intervention (like the miracles of Jesus) or through subtle influences. God is NEVER powerless.
I like what Tim Keller says about the lessons from the Sovereignty of God.
- God is at work in spite of appearance
- Man is obsessed with appearances
- God’s work can free us to see beyond the world’s perspective.
Since God is Sovereign it means any life can be made new. Our past mistakes, our horrible failures, and our bitter resistance in the past are not insurmountable barriers to our God. He can make ANYONE and anything new. He does it by leading us to faith in Jesus. He is able to change us when we give up trying to earn God’s favor and instead receive the gift of forgiveness and new life that can be ours because of the work of Jesus. He changes us when we are willing to stop clinging to the foolish notion that we are in charge of our life and instead acknowledge His sovereignty and put our trust in His wisdom and His grace. God will bring beauty from ashes if we will entrust ourselves to Him. He has a plan and His plan is good.
Yes, God is sovereign. That is not something to curse, it is something for which to give thanks. It is something good . . . very good. He has you and He has me in His hands. He will see us through the storm. Trust Him.
 MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 1714). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.